Religious Schools – Good or Bad Idea?

Religious Schools - Good or Bad Idea?

I recently met with new clients who happen to be religious people. The couple is very nice. In fact, they are wonderful people. But they struggle financially. Why? Do they have lousy jobs? Nope. They are great earners. Are they big spenders. Not really. They live very frugally except for the one item – a private, religious school. They strongly believe in sending their children to religious school at all costs – so they do.

You know the first question that Joan (the wife) asked when they came into my office?

“Should we refinance our mortgage to pay for our childrens’ education?”

They showed me the tuition they were paying to send their children to elementary school and I just about fell off my chair. The first thing that popped into my head was that I should start a school! With that kind of tuition, it looks like one of the great entrepreneurial ideas of our time!

I can understand their position, of course. Everyone has their own priorities and life isn’t all about money. But at what point do you draw the line? Would you pump all your money into a private school at the cost of your financial security and retirement? Investing in our kids is one of the best investments we can make. But does that mean mortgaging our future is the way to go?

My wife and I faced this question about 18 years ago. We lived in a nice area, but the public schools were not an option. We just didn’t feel comfortable sending our children to public school. The alternatives were to send the little ones to private religious school (in our case) or move.

We opted for the private religious school. The religious element wasn’t critical for us, but it was a nice add-on. In our situation, the cost difference between this private religious and a private secular school was insignificant. Our kids went there for three years, and then we decided it wasn’t worth the trade-off. We moved to a community with better public schools and, in our case, it worked out great.

Now, I have to admit that if the question is simply private versus good public schools, I have my answer. I’ve seen private schools first-hand and have yet to see a higher quality outcome from private versus public schools. Of course, many very successful people went to private schools. But there are plenty of successful people that come from public schools as well. That has been my experience at least. The cost of raising a child is high enough. I’ve never felt the need to make it more expensive.

But when it comes to private religious school, the equation changes. My experience tells me that people send their children to private religious school often without really considering the intended outcome. If you have a strong religious conviction and want to pass that along to the children, I get it.

But is sending your children to private religious school the best and most economical way to achieve your goal if you want to pass on your religious beliefs? I fear that most people who send their kids to these schools don’t even ask themselves these questions. Many people simply accept as fact that sending the kids to religious school is a better way to provide religious training so they start writing those big checks. And I’m not sure that’s always the case.

Again, if you can afford it, more power to you. But what if you can’t? What if you face the choice between saving for retirement or sending the kids to religious school?

What kind of message do you send to your kids when you fail to put anything aside for yourself or your future? Of course, depending on your own religious beliefs, this might be okay, but many religions also talk about personal responsibility. Is mortgaging your future consistent with that?

If you consider this question from a practical standpoint, the question you have to ask is, “will my child come out of religious school with a greater appreciation and respect for our religion than if she attends public school?” If that’s your main concern, that’s a fair question, and perhaps the most important one you need to ask yourself. But do you ask it? Do you consider the alternatives?

Is your desired outcome guaranteed by sending the kids to private religious school? Nope. Some people report less inclination to follow religious practices specifically because they went to religious school.

Are there moral and religious down sides to sending the kids to a school that saps all the family’s financial resources? I believe there could be.

The family that I met with has 3 wonderful kids in religious school – and no money. The family is deep in debt with no hope of getting out.

I’m not saying that religious school is a bad idea. I’m simply trying to get folks to consider it as one alternative rather than the only alternative.

When it comes to making financial decisions I just don’t think it’s in anyone’s interest to make those decisions with blinders on. You may not face these same challenges, but you might have other “sacred cows” that you spend money on without really considering the alternatives and the cost.

When my daughter got into NYU and Berklee School of Music, my family thought I was a regular Scrooge for even suggesting we consider these schools as just alternatives. When I suggested that we consider the cost/benefit trade off, I quickly became persona non grata. They had a “sacred cow”. Luckily, I held my ground and they came to their senses. I was adamant that high cost college doesn’t equal high value career. When I got them engaged in the conversation, things went much better.

How do you side on the issue of religious school? I’m especially interested to hear from you if you do send your kids and find the cost a burden. If that describes you, what is your rationale?

22 Responses to “Religious Schools – Good or Bad Idea?”

  1. Anonymous

    I think many private schools do offer scholarships or aids for families that do or will struggle for paying for the cost of a private school education. With that said, though, if a family can’t get aid or not enough aid and will still be going over their heads just to fund a private school education, I think there are other things that are even more important, such as being able to pay for food, clothes and other necessities (needs not wants) that should not be cut down on (but there are smart savvy ways to cut down on spending without cutting down on the amount of food bought or clothes etc. e.g. coupons, sales, etc.)

    I know there have been debates on whether private or public schools are better, and personally, as I read somewhere too, can’t remember where, but I think that a lot of how well a child does in school doesn’t even matter as much as to what kind of school a child goes to. What you put into it, is what you get out of it. Parents who are involved in their children and their education more than likely will have children who are more successful in school than children whose parents are not involved in their education. Of course, you don’t want to be a helicopter parent either, but it is crucial that parents are involved too.

    In MN we do have open enrollment, so if a parent does not like the school district that his or her son or daughter is assigned to, then the parent can enroll him or her in another district through open enrollment.

    I did student teach at a religious school too and have worked a little in a public school. Personally, the one thing I like better about private schools are that the classes are typically smaller so it is easier to get to know teachers and students. But the private school didn’t offer as many things as the public school did, such as specialists, like Spanish, media/library, music etc. There were so many more resources that the public school offered than the private school, and also, I thought the kids got exposed to a lot more diversity in the public school. In the real world, not everyone follows the Christian faith, like in the Lutheran school that I student taught at, not everyone has money or is white, which is what predominantly what the students were at the school I student taught at. You do see more of the real world in the public school. But back to what I said earlier on how private schools don’t seem to offer as many resources; I have to say that many don’t, but there may be plenty that do. The one I student taught at was really small, and so it probably wouldn’t have had as much as opposed to a bigger private school and this is probably even true with public schools. The bigger the school, the more choices and resources it will probably have in part because there will be more kids, but this may not always be the case (there are exceptions with almost anything).

    But no matter what kind of school it is, I don’t think there is one school, public or private, that has enough money to pay for everything. Every school would want or need more money to pay for whatever it is that they would need. And as for the teachers in public or private, I have found teachers at both the public and private schools who have really enjoyed teaching as well as some who didn’t care for it as much. Don’t stereotype saying how all teachers are just there for the paychecks, when they don’t get paid much, whether in a private or public setting, though at the public setting they do get many more benefits. Some teachers are like this, but most people in the education field I think really do care about their students, and I have come upon teachers in both settings that really do care about the profession they are in.

  2. Anonymous

    The reverse question is “Would you pump all your money into your family’s “financial security” (which is never a sure thing anyway), at the cost of what your children are exposed to in public schools, exposure to values which force them to grow up- too quickly- in ways that contradict your family’s values? There is a majority of people in school, up against your family size at home, which have a strong influence on your kids when they are in school over your influence at home.

  3. Anonymous

    My wife and I both went to public schools, K-12. Both graduated at the top of our classes and attended a state university. I graduated with a Bachelors of Science in aerospace engineering, she with a Masters of Engineering in aerospace engineering. I’ve worked on the Space Shuttle; she’s worked on cutting edge computational fluid dynamics. Is this is the result of “obey and memorize” education? Were students who came from private schools to our public schools ahead of us? No. It’s a result of personal drive and parental involvement, pushing us to do and achieve what we desired.

  4. Anonymous

    I also went to a private religious school from K-6 and then a public school from 7-12. The reason for my change was that my parents could no longer afford the school fees.
    I think that that my primary schooling gave a solid grounding in not only religion but also in the value of education itself. When I did transfer over to the local public school I found that I was ahead of the other students in most subjects.
    Looking back I know that in the private school I was very sheltered and that my public school opened my eyes a bit more to the world before I left.
    When I have kids I think that I will follow the same pattern.

  5. Anonymous

    I went to a religious school from K-8. I then went to a public school from 9-12. When I was a freshman I noticed my catholic school friends and I were at least 2 years ahead of 90% of the public school kids in many subjects. I’m not a religious nut and I rarely go to church. I personally think the education, at least in my area, is far better in a private school.

  6. Anonymous

    Courtney,

    I think you have the best point. No school is going to turn a mediocre student into an amazing one.

    This is completely off topic, but is it ever awkward since you\\\’re a Christian and your husband is not? Many people seem to think mixing religions (or lack of) is impossible…

    Pharmboy,

    No offense meant, but sending your child to a religious school just to avoid awkwardness seems like a horrible idea.

  7. Anonymous

    Who do you want to brainwash your kids? The pope or the president/governor? At least the pope doesn\\\’t use guns to collect taxes.

    There are many reasons to reject public education. You already mentioned one: some towns have poor performing schools.

  8. Anonymous

    My son is only 19 months old, so my wife and I still have some time to make this decision.

    Since we’re Catholic (and can afford it), I think that it’ll simply be awkward each Sunday morning after Mass when the priest sees our kids and asks us why they don’t attend the church’s school. Honestly, that might be reason enough for me.

    Other than that, my other reason for leaning towards private will be accountability. I’ve heard from family and friends of issues they were having with their child’s public school. They would bring the issue to the attention of the teacher or administrator and receive a “So what?” look in response. I’m so far to the right politically that the idea of sending my kid to a government school bugs the crap out of me. I just know I’ll have a complaint or concern and they’ll look right at me and say “Hey this is a monopoly. If you want, sell your house, quit your job and move somewhere else so you can send your kid to a ‘better’ school.” The lack of school choice and the lack of support for it by the public is astounding to me.

  9. Anonymous

    The solution for my family was to enroll the kids in the Church’s school. My daughter didn’t want anything to do with public school and my son didn’t want anything to do with school. This option suited both kids. Cost was minimal as the school was a ministry of the church.
    Daughter went to college to become a teacher and son became a commercial artist. My son sent his kids to public school and my daughter home schooled her daughters. The home schooled kids are able to participate in sports and other public school activities, if you have this option in your part of the country then I think you should home school. Have you noticed how many home schooled kids make it to the National Spelling and Geography Bees and win?

  10. Anonymous

    schools don’t matter as much as parents think.

    my buddy got picked on way more in catholic school than in public school. the kids that went to that catholic school were pieces of crap.

  11. Anonymous

    Jim,

    Yes, many schools offer scholarships to help parents afford the tuition. Those scholarship dollars need to be raised each year, however, and that is not an easy undertaking. Some church-run schools are supported by the church they are affiliated with.

    We will be focusing more efforts on raising scholarship money so more families can afford to send their children to our school.

    I personally would like to see our state provide vouchers to parents so they could send their students to schools of their choice. Pennsylvania may be doing this soon (at least for lower income families in school districts that are failing), but some (mainly teachers unions) don’t think it’s a good idea. As it is now, I pay tuition and taxes to support the public schools which I don’t use. As I pointed out earlier, our Christian school educates a child for about $5,000 a year, while public schools are $12,000+ a year in our area.

  12. Anonymous

    Don’t many such schools offer scholarships or other forms of financial aid for some families? I’m sure many don\\\’t, but it would seem an option worth pursuing.

    If you can’t afford private school then you shouldn’t do it. I know people want the best for their kids but putting the entire family in financial jeopardy is not good for the kids at all.

  13. Anonymous

    My husband went to a private christian school. I went to a secular public school, and a fairly mediocre one at that.

    Today, I am the christian and he is the atheist. I got a PhD and he stopped at a bachelors.

    Most children will end up thriving or not, exactly as they would have otherwise regardless of the school. And most children will formulate their belief system independent of their school exposure.

  14. Anonymous

    I went to private Catholic school from 1st-12th grade and the religion is not the most important thing to my mom, it was the education. However being Catholic and being involved in the community means the bills are lower than a comparable non-Catholic private school. The education is so different, you do not have to teach to the test, disruptive influences are removed from the school and in the younger ages you do not need to deal with the sex, and drugs the public school kids deal with. My DH and I don’t make a lot of money but we will be skimping and pinching pennies so that our children get the Catholic private school education I did. Information I thought was common knowledge, my husband did not learn in public school, I was taught to question and understand, him to memorize and obey. I’ll cut everything I have to, to allow my children what I had.

  15. Anonymous

    Just realized that I forgot to check the “Notify me of followup comments” box and am submitting another response so I’ll get the comments as they come in.

  16. Anonymous

    This is one of the reasons that we homeschool our children. We have found it is far more cost efficient to give our children the education we want them to have-which includes our religious views-with me staying home and homeschooling. Our local Christian school is great but way out of our budget-even if I was working outside the home.

  17. Anonymous

    A *good* accredited elementary school-with-religion will be part of a larger worship community; not a private, for-profit enterprise which has a few minutes set aside each day for prayers or religious instruction.

    Often, the quality of education is better not because of the religion, but because parents and families are required to volunteer at the school to offset costs. The keys are Involvement and Community-building by and with families, not just teachers and students. Volunteering minimums help all people get involved, and maximums can be set in place so no single clique of parents ‘takes over’.

    A school that’s part of an established congregation or worship community will always have partial or even full scholarships. Often they will have fund drives or fun fairs or bake sales and the like simply to help members of the faith community pay for scholarships or a new teacher’s salary.

    A good and effective education happens when there’s faith in the school community and in the students themselves, not necessarily in any particular religion.

  18. Anonymous

    Neal,

    We think that Christian school for our daughters is a great idea!

    As a father of two daughters who attend a private, Christian school, I would like to give you my perspective.

    We send our girls to a Christian school primarily because we value the opportunity to further develop their relationship with Jesus Christ, and so represent Him (Christ) in their community. It is not because we want them to be “religious”.

    We have made very deliberate choices that have allowed us to have the money we need to send them to this school. We moved to a county that has lower housing costs and lower taxes. We also drive our cars for as long as possible and do many other things to save money. Our monthly payment for tuition is nearly as high as our mortgage payment, but we feel that this is money well spent.

    As for your comment, “The first thing that popped into my head was that I should start a school! With that kind of tuition, it looks like one of the great entrepreneurial ideas of our time!” Well, you really don’t understand the conditions that most private schools function in. I have been on the board of my daughter’s school for about 6 years and they are certainly not raking in the money. The tuition and fees for one child is around $5,000, but this is far less than the public schools in our area that spend $12,000+ Our teachers pay and benefits are about 1/2 of what public school teachers make, which is something we certainly would like to see change in the future.

    I know that our teachers love Jesus, love the children and love their work. That is not something I couldn’t say about many public school teachers. I value that the teachers can pray with our girls. I also value that our school doesn’t have to teach to the standard PSSA test in Pennsylvania. As I’ve heard from public school teachers, they have no real flexibility but must teach to the PSSA and how to score best on that particular test.

    We were also blessed last year when we filled our vacant administrator position. A highly qualified gentleman who had a well-paid position at a public university came to our school to run it. He took a very significant pay cut to do so, but he felt called by God to take the job. It is no exaggeration to say that his responsibilities are well beyond a public school administrator who make double the money (and have much better benefits). It was a sacrifice to take the job, but we’re certainly glad that he did.

    You might think that academics suffer at our school because we don’t spend as much as public schools do and don’t pay our teachers or administrators nearly as much. This is definitely not the case. Our students routinely outscore their public school counterparts on Stanford Achievement tests and SAT tests, and by a significant margin.

    It is well worth the sacrifice to send our daughters to a Christian school. Sure, we could be driving a BMW and going on extravagant vacations every year, but we choose not to. The only debt we have is our mortgage and we hope to pay that off before our oldest graduates from high school. We also hope to go to DisneyWorld next year–after we’ve saved the cash to do so.

    I hope that helps.

    Chris

  19. Anonymous

    Interesting piece. I have a friend who sends her children to a religious private school which taps most available money in their life. The school is disappointingly unresponsive to real concerns about academic or social development, bullying, disabilities etc. I have seen this in some of the other religious schools in our area that are for younger kids [elementary level] and the high schools as well. If the public school is reasonably good it seems that for YOUNGER children [who may have more developmental issues requiring intervention, and for whom real social issues are not really at risk] it seems foolish to me to spend that money – teach religion at home, attend church classes etc.

    I send my older children to a religious 6-12 grade school however. I think the issues of acceptable behavior are more pressing in this age range. The religious element was not such a factor for us as academics and social behavior. The public school has little ability and less willingness to define behavior but the private religious school has a strong interest in it. My kids don’t have to be in an environment that pushes them to grow up too fast. They don’t have to compete with designer labels [uniforms are wonderful!] and they don’t have to be inundated by the public school culture more concerned with bringing the lower level up than with recognizing merit and making success at ANY activity about effort and achievement instead of constantly worrying about everyone being the ‘same’ [note my kids aren’t great at everything any more than anyone else’s kids – I just loathe the public school need to make actual achievement less special becuase they want to make sure everyone feels great about themselves all the time – no flames, it’s just my .02 – I’d rather have my kids motivated to do better at something they care about than get a trophy for barely showing up to something]

    However if it was a matter of going into debt and struggling mightily I would likely homeschool my kids if necessary – it’s a feasible option and one that would give that family you spoke of complete control over content without the unreasonable cost.

  20. Anonymous

    My family had no interest in religious schools, but my parents moved from one of the worst school districts in the country to one of the best to make sure that we could have excellent educations. They couldn’t afford private schools where we originally lived.

    As for the religious aspect, many non-Christian families I’ve met have no private school option that upholds their religion but they pass along their values and religious practices just fine to their kids anyway. In fact, it seems to be an educational experience for their kids since they get exposed to a wide variety of people, cultures, and religions.

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